from Brenda in Hove, UK: Cleaning and other forms of saintly behaviour

28 April: One of my sisters has always been very house-proud, even before she had domestic help. With lock-down in South Africa being as fierce as it is, she is without help, elderly and has multiple health problems to boot. Keeping up is proving too much for her.   I reminded her of the American comedian, Erma Bombeck’s theory on housework: “if the item doesn’t multiply, smell, catch fire, or block the refrigerator door, let it be. No one else cares. Why should you?” She was not amused.

I actually prefer another of Bombeck’s sayings: “I can’t see the point of housework,” she said. “You clean everything and then six months later, you have to do it all over again.” I certainly didn’t expect to have to involve myself quite so much in the cleaning side of things until Covid-19 took away the option. When my cleaner sent a text yesterday suggesting that we go to the park for an hour or so while she cleaned, I cracked. We agreed elaborate hand-over procedures and next week I am at least partially free again. I reckon it is possible that, for me at least, housework could be more depressing than lock-down. Three laps of the park will do me fine while she works away.

One of the many things that used to distinguish Nelson Mandela from other important guests at big functions was that he would always ask to see the cleaners and the kitchen staff and personally thank them for their part in making the function a successful one. When you are locked up all those years as he was (27 to be precise) and you have to undertake all the menial but necessary tasks that keep your life orderly, you don’t take them for granted.

I saw this in action the first time I met Mandela. He was relatively newly released from prison and came to Durban to address the first ever combined meeting of the two big student associations in South Africa, one representing black students and the other representing white students. The Vice Chancellor’s residence was judged to be a secure enough place for him to have lunch and a rest before the meeting – and I was lucky enough to be his host.

We had a very lively and relaxed lunch and he regaled me with all sorts of stories about his life on the run. His staff had told me that, with his busy schedule, he simply had to have a 30 minute rest after lunch. So at 2pm I told him that he couldn’t imagine what his staff would do to me if I didn’t make sure he had a rest. “Ah!” he sighed. “I have gone from one prison to another.” And then, before he took a rest, he went into the kitchen to thank the staff hovering there and hoping for a glimpse of the great man.

P.S. His message to the students was “study hard and pass your exams. We need qualified people in our country.”


from Brenda in Hove, UK: Some things have to change!

25 April: I am not a person who likes routine. This quiet life that Corona has visited upon me, and the  routines, I find very irksome. This week I sought to change at least some things. Other changes were thrust upon me!

  1. I decided that my daily walk in the park would incorporate a walk through the meditative maze in the park. This particular maze is a “labyrinth-like design based on a fingerprint set into the turf using stone, on a slight incline in the park”. Such a design is said to be “an ancient, mystical pattern – a meandering path to the centre, which is often used to symbolize the journey through life.” Rather unlike life, the labyrinth has only one path to the centre, requiring no decision and allowing the mind free to contemplate – in theory. I set off rather pleased at the prospect of something different only to find that two people were sitting right in the middle of the maze – and showing no signs of moving. Pipped at the post. Tomorrow is another day. And the day after that.
  2. Our shopping list has been, more or less, the same – week after week. Nice enough dinners but the sameness is what gets one. An Instagram advert presented the possibility of a change. A company called #Mindfulchef delivers – once a week – a box containing five selected recipes and all the ingredients necessary. Everything is fresh – and all are gluten free. Today is Day One of a more adventuresome diet. Can’t remember when I was more pleased.
  3. I have big plans for my balcony garden. Getting planters and pots was easy enough but pot trays impossible. I couldn’t get potting soil either. Everybody who could was out there, gardening their heads off! Finally a kind gardener I know said he would deliver potting soil and some plants to my front door – if I put out plastic sheeting. His choice of plants, not mine. Beggars can’t be choosers. Nearly fifty plants and eight (eight!) bags of soil were duly deposited in the passage outside our door. I already had taken delivery of three dozen plug plants. The first hurdle was the absence of crock. We have recently moved and I didn’t think to bring such a thing with me. Any delivery that entails polystyrene has been greeted with unusual delight and I spend evenings pummeling pieces of polystyrene into suitable sizes to go at the bottom of my pots – and, in the process scattering little white balls all over the apartment. Some routine that! Watering not a simple matter either: one watering can at a time from the kitchen to the balcony – taking care to only water when the woman in the flat below me is safely tucked in bed and cannot be rained on from above! This is not gardening as I know it. Bloody but unbowed, I continue.
  4. I signed up with the Commonwealth of Learning to act as a mentor for young women in far-flung places. I was informed of the names of my mentees today. None of my present cohort would imagine that they are doing me a much greater favour than I am doing them. I will tell them!

from Brenda in Hove, UK: Why are some people so unconcerned?

22 April: My daughter, her husband and my grand-daughter live in Florida. My daughter is a nurse. She doesn’t need to be told that covid19 is serious. She knows that very well – and has to go to work every day in that knowledge. Her fellow citizens in Florida however, including the Governor, don’t seem to be that concerned at all. Even when the Governor, one of the last Governors to do so, called for a ‘stay-at-home’, his order listed “essential services” to encompass “attending religious services conducted in churches, synagogues and houses of worship” – and indeed, he actively encouraged people to attend Easter services. This order was supposed to be in force from 3 April to 30 April but, surprise, surprise, he opened various beaches on 17 April. Sure enough, people flocked to them provoking a rather unpleasant hashtag trend ‘FloridaMorons’ – and there are all sorts of people tweeting that they have a right to respond to the virus in any way they please without being labelled in this way.

Apart from having a vested interest in Florida being rendered as safe a possible during this time, I am fascinated by what makes people scared of one virus and not others. I am reading a book called Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond  by Sonia Shah and she asks the question: “why do some pathogens provoke yawns while others trigger panic?”  Americans have not been particularly disturbed by Lyme disease, dengue (which, by the way, is likely to become endemic in Florida), malaria or rabies but they were absolutely terrified by Ebola. The terror took on a name “Ebolanoia”. Shah concludes that it didn’t seem to matter “that Ebola was easily and simply avoided”, it was “its untamable nature that was at the root of the panic.” Corona virus statistics clearly don’t frighten and the death rate, except for specific categories, is relatively low. So far.

Polls in Britain show that the British are concerned, support the lock-down measures and reduced train and car travel suggests people are obeying the rules (#TheEconomist, 18 April)

One can’t resist pondering whether the difference lies, partly, in the messaging from the leaders in the two countries. In Britain, the Government’s message is unequivocal: “stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives” – and it is repeated all the time on all media. Maybe it is the positioning of ‘protect the NHS’ that strikes such a strong chord. It seems to me to be an excellent communication.

In sharp contrast, in the United States, the messaging from the glorious leader has been confusing, obfuscating and sometimes, downright wrong.

We know that this pandemic will change the world in many ways, unknowable right now but we should call governments to account for their unpreparedness for this pandemic. That is something that should concern us all. It shouldn’t happen again quite like this. I recommend  Shah’s TED talk:

from Brenda in Hove, UK: women’s work?

April 18. In every study I have ever seen, women do way more of the household chores than their male partners – even when both are in full time employment. And that is in normal circumstances. I wonder if anything has changed during the last few weeks.

I was pondering this on my daily walk in the park – clearly a place where I do a lot of musing. There are many more women bringing the children to the park, not only more than men but more than family groups. I wonder if this extends to the supervision of schoolwork that now has to be done at home – and adds to the list of things that need parental attention.   

 I was much amused by a video clip sent to me from South Africa recently. It pictures a man scrubbing a floor – and a woman’s voice saying (in Afrikaans); “Thank you for helping me with the floor, my darling. Could you just go right into the corner? And could go a bit more quickly, my love?” During the last half of this exchange it becomes clear she has a gun pointing right at him. Go figure!   

from Brenda in Hove, UK: A walk in the park

Hove Park, UK

“Thinking about the things we used to do! 🎶🎶 – like a walk in the park …”

Most days I go for a 20 minute walk (government guideline time!). We are fortunate to live abutting a park so we are very familiar with the seasons and many of the people who walk there. Many are walking their dogs and often one stops for a chat. There is a small cafe selling breakfasts and lunches and tea and coffee.- and, among others, lots of mothers with small children meet there. There is also a gym as well as people with personal trainers doing their thing. There are tennis courts and table tennis facilities. Altogether, a friendly, active, humming kind of place – that was! 

It is not like that any more. It strikes one as anything but relaxed. People walk at a two metre distance and they do so in a purposeful way. Cyclists go past you, children on scooters, runners – all going about their daily activity as if their life depends on it. There is little in the way of eye contact, no tarrying, no chatting, no bird watching, no photography (despite the breathtaking beauty of the cherry blossoms at this time of the year).  The cafe is, of course, closed – as is the gym. The young mothers have disappeared. No tennis. No table tennis. A police car cruises around the boundary from time to time. I don’t know why they bother. A more orderly bunch of people would be difficult to find. 

Yesterday, a woman called across the path to me “it’s very cold today.” She had a slightly desperate air about her. “It is,” I said. “Just when we thought the winter was over.” “I don’t have heating in my flat”, she said. We had a short conversation about keeping warm and not mistaking a cold for corona virus – and I awkwardly exhorted her to keep warm and safe – and moved on. I thought of all the lonely people whose daily routine included a coffee or meal at the cafe and a walk (and chance encounter) – and how a walk for some is an important contributor to their mental health. For those who suffer from depression this corona virus has visited a double crisis upon them. Many live alone and even their short venture out provides no contact. If you add in the fear and anxiety that many people must be feeling, not just about the virus itself but about their jobs and mortgages and future, we have a serious issue which must be causing enormous suffering. 

A Guardian columnist (#AndrewSolomon) writes that “from now on, when someone who hasn’t experienced clinical depression and anxiety asks me what they feel like, I won’t have to resort to florid comparisons. I’ll say: “Remember when the Covid-19 pandemic hit town?”  And they will understand.”            

from Brenda in Hove, UK: a History of Solitude

History of Solitude by David Vincent

13 April. The Guardian’s Book of the Week (#TheGuardianWeekly) is David Vincent’s The History of Solitude which comes out shortly.

Rarely has a book publication been more well timed. I am struck by his reminding us that “in the 19th century, only 1% of the British population lived on their own; in 2011 it was 31%.” Right here in the block of apartments in which I live, I estimate about one third of the occupants are living alone – many elderly people. Solitude, of course, is not the same as loneliness; living alone does not make you lonely. But I ponder the condition now of both the many solitary and lonely elderly people in this time of lock-down. They are more dependent than they could have foreseen. We are all dependent on armies of (mostly) low paid workers who soldier on with little recognition – although their importance does seem to have seeped into the public consciousness, but they are more dependent. From my balcony I see care workers come and go (twice preceded by the arrival of ambulances), I see a constant procession of delivery vans bringing all sorts of necessities, I see garbage removal trucks faithfully doing their thing. A couple of days ago I leaned over the balcony and caught the attention of one of the garbage men and said, “thank you”. I was surprised at the response. He called the attention of each of his four colleagues, in turn, to look up and get their own personal thanks. Small recognition.

Elderly people in care homes are obviously dependent but their situation has become dire – almost beyond belief. Every day, as one government official or another intones the death toll for the previous 24 hours, he or she adds “and that excludes deaths in care homes.” They are not allowed visitors, they get sick, and they die. Attendance at funerals is not allowed. Solitary, uncounted, unremarked – except in that callous give away line.

Again, it is the care workers or nurses that might be there at the end – if they have the time to pause. My daughter is a nurse (not in a Covid ward) and asked one of the Covid nurses what she does when the end is nigh. She said, “If I can, I sing for them.” 

The next edition of The History of Solitude might have a whole new chapter recording this extraordinary time. 

from Brenda in Hove, UK: Wills and Powers of Attorney in the time of Covid-19

April 10. It is not a simple matter to draw up a will and get it signed when ‘social distancing’ requires not being within two metres of anybody. We got through the first hurdle and met with a lawyer via Skype and he sent the documentation. Thankfully, the postal system is still working – because our printer is not.

The wills have to be witnessed by people who are prepared to attest to the fact that not only  is it you who is actually signing but that you are in sound mind while doing so. We thought this might put a bit of a strain on neighbours who have only recently met us. How would they know? The word “eccentric” at the very least must have crossed their minds in the last few months.

We have a friend who lives nearby and has already recovered from Covid. Perfect. She could hire herself out! We met in the park which we overlook and which has a few convenient tables. I brought surgical gloves and we all brought our own black pens. This is not a matter for amateurs. What followed was like a synchronised dance. James and I moved in to sign the wills (one page each, mind; bare minimum and simple as could be) – and moved back. Our friends each moved in to sign – and moved back. James and I moved in to sign the PDAs and moved back – and they each moved in to sign – and moved back. We did draw some curious glances from passers-by and I was more than ready to deal with anyone who might emerge from the police car cruising around.

Done and dusted! We can rest easy. Just have to pay nearly £1000 for the pleasure.   

from Brenda in Hove, UK: Face Mask making in South Africa

My daughter in law is a very creative and enterprising person. She trained as a fashion designer and has always been very successful. From working for one of the top clothing chains in South Africa, she moved on to establish her own company (with two partners), downsized a couple of years ago (prescient) and now has a small business, designing and manufacturing women’s clothes. Guess what? As South Africa went into lockdown, every single order (many of them already made up) was cancelled. Who needs a Spring Collection now. Ruthless business.

Being the person she is – and desperate to keep her staff – she quickly turned her mind and capacity to making face masks. Designed some samples, constructed a website, organised her “essential services” certificate, and started making phone calls – and posting on Whatsapp. She had an order of 2000 from the neighbourhood where she lives, got an order of 50,000 within days and an hour after that a guy from a pharmaceutical company called and asked for 1 million. She had to turn him down. It seems that medical services and pharmacies in South Africa have little to nothing. And, of course, the need enormous.

The UK government has come to recognise that small businesses are a category of the economy that need special help at this time and have set aside funds accordingly. No such help will come from the South African government which is already dealing with a shaky economy. But, help or no help, businesses (small and big) will be looking hard at their business plans and strategies and realising that short, medium and long term plans are out the window. When catastrophe strikes, all previous assumptions are redundant. Life will not be the same after the dust settles.           

from Brenda in Hove, UK: Planting Time – the Empty Desk Goal

7 April. April and spring have always meant planting time for me. Having sold our house and lovely garden (and greenhouse), I am now limited to a balcony. I had hoped that a gardener who had looked after our garden before would come and help out but he is nowhere to be found. So, banishing all negative thoughts of the future,  I ordered planters and pots and potting soil and plugs of some my favourite annuals: petunias, daisies, nemesia, verbena, and more. Rather a lot more! They are not arriving in the right sequence! Deliveries seem to have turned into a lucky dip. Today I got a whole box of seedlings (three dozen) but during the week I have received only one small bag of soil. I spent a happy hour planting them all crammed together in one pot and at least they are in the soil and watered (several trips with watering can). I spent considerably more time (in rubber gloves) disposing of all the cardboard containers and packing material in which they arrived. This was no mean feat. They have to be carried two floors down, banisters to be wiped, entry key pads to be wiped, boxes to be dismantled and conveyed into large bins with heavy lids. Several trips, much washing of hands involved. I plan to pack every part of the balcony with flowering plants and leave only just enough room for a couple of chairs. If this is where I am to be confined, so be it: flowers all around me (eventually, courtesy of nurseries and Amazon) and a view of the park, friends on Whatsapp, and a good book.

6 April. Goal: an empty desk

For years and years I have craved an empty desk. One of the main features of my desk have always been lots of post-its and lists. I have always been a great list maker – and get a sense of satisfaction ticking off the items I have jotted down. This has not been a universally admired ritual. One of my ever patient secretaries once said to me “B, if you would just stop making lists for a few days, we could all catch up!” Another said “There is no such thing as an empty desk. The day you have an empty desk is the day you don’t have a day job. Get used to it.” I now have cause to remember them – and I do so fondly. Thanks to being confined to quarters, mirabilis dictu, I have almost eliminated all post-its. At the grand old age of 76, in March I relinquished my last paid employment – and that too has contributed to the fact that in a few days’ time I will have an empty desk. And then I am going to write a book. But first I am going to admire my empty desk for a while.

5 April. What about the rest of my life?

I have been thinking. (My family is not particularly keen on that phrase!) And I have been thinking that, given my age group and dodgy asthma condition, that when this virus is  brought under control (that is, is occurring at a rate that the NHS can handle) it will still lurk around in the same way that flu lurks around. And, as long as it lurks, I will be very vulnerable. So the way I am living now might not be substantially different from the way I will have to live the rest of my life – that is, until a vaccine is found. And then I turned on  the inimitable Trevor Noah and his interview with Bill Gates (#thedailyshow) and found corroboration, from Bill Gates, no less.  He too says that “The ultimate solution – the only thing that really lets us go back completely to normal and feel good about sitting in a stadium of other people – is to create a vaccine.” I am sure a vaccine will be found. Having worked in a university environment for most of my life I have boundless faith in the ingenuity of the human species and scientists, in particular. The question remains then: when?

And so until then I must get on with it. I have never been to a stadium and have no wish to do so now – so that’s not a problem. I have come to hate air travel so having that option removed from me is fine. I have traveled quite extensively so have no great bucket list in that department. Concerts will have to be enjoyed online and the Met and other orchestras are stepping up to the plate. I am taking more tours of great museums – virtually – than I ever would be able to do in reality and I think I am enjoying them with an intensity I didn’t experience before (cabin fever plays its part). I spend more hours on the phone with friends and family than I ever would have been able to manage if I had to travel to meet them. I play bridge online with friends and with our Whatsapp phones on throughout the game we have just as much social interaction as we had when we traveled to each other’s houses. We might never play face to face again. On the other hand, you still can’t beat a good dinner party. And a lovely long rail journey would be a treat and I love going to see the great gardens to be found in the UK and I love meeting friends in London and enjoying all the city has to offer. And I love walking on the beach and, and, and. Oh dear. I do hope they hurry up and find a vaccine.

from Brenda in Hove, UK: Scouting for Home Deliveries. 4 April

I am finding scouting for businesses that make home deliveries very time consuming. The big supermarkets have limited ‘slots’ and I have not succeeded in getting a single one. My book club put together or found a list of small providers and I happily resorted to a couple of them. I was pleased that at least some businesses would benefit from all this disruption. The results have been bizarre – or I have lost my mind in the process. I have the biggest carton of ice cream you have ever seen; we had to take a drawer out of the freezer to accommodate it. I have a huge roll of kitchen towelling which will last me the rest of my life (and I still feel quite well, thank you), I have dozens of bottles of peach tea and a box of 48 twirls (chocolate). The delivery man could not contain himself on this last one: “I hope you enjoy your chocolates” (heavy sarcasm). “It is possible they will save my life,” I replied. What does he know of what I laughingly call ‘my life’?  

3 April. Spare a thought for all the parents who have school age children and are now compelled to work from home. I hear stories of the managers (whose children have grown up and who clearly have short memories) calling virtual meetings at any hour that suits them – and with no regard for the parents struggling to keep children occupied, home schooled and indoors who have to attend those meetings. Children dart in and out of the video frame and distract not only the parent. I had to meet with a lawyer yesterday to update my will and enjoyed the charming sight of him meeting me from a baby girls’ nursery.  He handled the off camera sounds with an ease one could only admire. 

Some of parents are single mothers who already had a difficult enough time juggling work commitments, kid’s homework and other demands – and now are required to manage all three simultaneously.  In the UK single parent families make up one quarter of families with dependent children (see One’s mind boggles. 

We are led to believe that working from home is something to be encouraged anyway and this enforced period will demonstrate how beneficial it will be. For some, maybe! It is indeed possible that productivity will actually increase for those without the distractions of office or children – but those with children will be judged on the same performance criteria and their productivity cannot but decrease. Managers and Human Resource people need to talk about this before harsh decisions are made and some careers badly damaged.